Worldwide, airlines have expanded their fleets and ambitiously foresee the doubling of commercial jets during the next two decades as the number of air travelers approaches 7 billion. The concern, however, is that there won’t be enough controllers to oversee the organization of those 44,000 planes. The International Civil Aviation Organization predicts that by 2030, we will need another 40,000 air traffic controllers to handle the increase in air traffic.
With a global shortage of controllers, you may see remote operators take over small fields to free up controllers for the larger commercial airports… — Tyler Shelton | ATC Community Manager
One solution could be exactly that; implement remote operations for smaller airports to allow for more in-person controlling at the hubs we all know and love. Imagine a wall of flat-screen TVs and a few tablets controlled by a stylus.
Some airports are now testing “remote towers” that allow controllers to sit hundreds of miles away and still effectively monitor operations through high-definition cameras and sensors. The futuristic technology is even sensitive enough to penetrate fog and detect wild animals on runways. The companies behind this project claim it’s cheaper than hiring controllers to fill vacancies at smaller and more remote airports.
“We can see a huge interest from all continents,” Dan-Aake Enstedt, Saab’s Asia-Pacific manager, said in an email. “This lets you operate an airport that might otherwise be too expensive to keep open, or help to smooth the flow of traffic around major airports as they expand.”
Saab’s system resembles an immersive IMAX theater. An array of screens on the wall gives the illusion of actually being in the tower, spotting aircraft through the windows, with radar blips tracked on a desktop monitor and flights managed by oversized tablets. Graphics pop up on the screens, and the controller can maneuver a camera to take a closer look at the airport or aircraft, just like our free camera in Infinite Flight.
Airservices Australia, the government entity that employs more than 1,000 controllers, said in an email that it is considering “further evaluation and potential deployment of this type of technology.”
The executive airport in Leesburg, Virginia, which has installed 14 cameras, says the concept is supported by the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, adding that it cuts costs and improves staffing models.
Another solution could be reducing the controller’s workload by using artificial intelligence. Different forms of this are being tested or used around the world.
One example of this is the so-called Intelligent Assistant. The assistant could be listening to the conversation between controllers and pilots while also processing weather data from sensors on the plane and other sources such as the IATA turbulence platform. Integrating the data and the conversations, with a bit of AI-based processing, could allow the Intelligent Assistant to recommend a deviation in course to improve the ride.
Another example is AIMEE, the AI-supported assistant being trialed at London’s Heathrow Airport. The use of ultra high definition cameras and digital processing software can tell when aircraft have exited the runway, allowing controllers to clear the next arrival, even if the tower is fogged in. This is extremely helpful in Europe especially, since clearances can only be given when the runway is clear of any aircraft.
AI is obviously not replacing the ATC job but merely lightening the load of the job. For more insight on the matter, I looked to a real-world controller at Harrisburg International Airport (KMDT), Tyler Shelton. He responded by saying,
I don’t expect AI to takeover Air Traffic Control responsibilities in our lifetime. Often times the human element with its reliance on training and experience can be the deciding factor in critical moments that will result in life or death. There are a few airports that are already using remote ATC where a single person can monitor a series of cameras and displays, but I’ve got to imagine there is a certain threshold in terms of airport size, complexity, and traffic volume where that can still be an effective method.
With a global shortage of controllers, you may see remote operators take over small fields to free up controllers for the larger commercial airports but I certainly wouldn’t expect your global HUBs to transition to this remote coverage anytime soon. Things happen quickly and you need trained eyes watching things from a first-person perspective without the chance of interference or technical difficulties. Much like any aviation incident, it only takes one major accident to revert all progress made on remote ATC, AI, or any other replacement to the highly trained force that aviation authorities around the world have already invested so much in.
In the world of aviation, a delicate balance between efficiency and safety is highly sought after. Of course, the latter outweighs the former. How do we provide more ATC coverage while still providing safe and quality coverage? How do we keep up with the ever-expanding industry? Is it a good idea to involve AI in air traffic control? Feel free to leave comments, thoughts, questions, or feedback down below!
“Bringing Artificial Intelligence to ATC: Huge Promises, Challenging Timelines.” PaxEx.Aero , 25 Jan. 2019, https://paxex.aero/2019/01/artificial-intelligence-air-traffic-control-atc-thales/.
Noyes, Dan. “Could Air Traffic Controller Shortage Have Impact on Safety?” ABC7 San Francisco , 13 Oct. 2018, https://abc7news.com/4468996/.
“Robots May Solve the Global Air Traffic Controller Shortage.” Skift , 23 Apr. 2016, https://skift.com/2016/04/23/robots-may-solve-the-global-air-traffic-controller-shortage/.